February 26 – A River Divided Cannot Stand

Today’s factismal: The Republican River is named for the Kithehaki Pawnee Indians who lived beside it.

The Republican River is a beautiful tributary that flows through the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas before it joins the Kansas River and flows on down to the Gulf of Mexico. At a mere 453 miles long, it isn’t America’s longest river and with just 848 cubic feet of water per second moving through it, it certainly isn’t America’s biggest. But what the Republican River just might be is America’s most adjudicated river. That’s because the Republican River was the center of a lawsuit that went all the way from the local courts up to the US Supreme Court. More about that in a moment.

Long before it was the center of a lawsuit, the Republican River was the center of the lives of the Kithehaki Pawnee Indians who lived on its banks in what would become Kansas and Nebraska. This tribe would come to be known as the Republican Indians,  for reasons that are now obscure. This matrilineal group used the river for food, for water, and for transport for centuries before the Lewis and Clark expedition stopped by to say hello in 1804. Many of them continue to live there today, even though the river is somewhat less full than it was back when their grandfathers’ grandfathers lived there.

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others) (Image courtesy NASA)

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others)
(Image courtesy NASA)

The reason that it is less full is also the reason for the lawsuit. As is the case with other rivers in the US (and elsewhere), there are more people that want to use the water from the river than the river can support. And, as has been the case with other rivers in the US (and elsewhere), the folks downstream have sued the ones upstream to get their fair share of the water. What was unusual in this case is that the downstream folks won. Usually, the people upstream have a nearly unlimited right to use the water as they choose, but in this case the states of Nebraska and Kansas had signed a compact defining how much water each was entitled to. The Supreme Court agreed that the compact had been violated (though they disagreed on how much it had been violated) and found for Kansas, fining Nebraska $5.5 million dollars.

Now if you’d like to get involved in helping out the folks downstream from where you live, you have a couple of choices. You can wait for them to file a lawsuit or you can do what you can to conserve water where you live. And one part of that would be to join a “Stream Team” like the one in Texas. These folks go out and measure the amount of water flowing in their streams, so they can help scientists and farmers plan water usage; they also do stream clean-ups and bioblitzes to help improve the water quality and understand what wildlife their stream supports. To join them, flow over to their page:
http://www.meadowscenter.txstate.edu/Service/TexasStreamTeam.html

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